It's been nearly 35 years since I've been in North Wales. Back then, I was a student at Coleg Harlech, a residential adult education college in Gwynned, which provided courses for adult learners, transforming the lives of many working-class people. It has since closed down, and the historic buildings have recently been sold to a developer. Such is progress these days.
Anyway, I returned to this beautiful country to meet the family of my future son-in-law, who live in the small, historic market town of Ruthin, Denbighshire. A town packed with history and character, it has a fine jumble of black and white medieval buildings and 'a ghost story for every corner'. And, of course, it has its own castle, which is now a grand hotel.
We embarked on a day trip to Conwy: a larger, walled market town with its own magnificent 13th-century castle, and the 'smallest house in Great Britain'. It is indeed tiny: 3.05 x 1.8 metres. There's a delightful story of an owner in 1900 – a six-foot fisherman – who was forced to move out on the grounds of hygiene. Apparently, the rooms were too small for him to stand up in fully.
I noticed too the blue and gold flag of the EU on signs, proudly displayed, of European-funded projects. In fact, Conwy has received £53m of European funding, yet the area (and Wales in general) voted Leave. Talking to a local, I asked why. She shook her head, saying it was incomprehensible. I asked whether there were regrets now it's obvious that leaving the EU will have such a damaging impact on the country. Apparently, there is regret, but not explicit remorse. Rather, the local said, she can find no-one who voted Leave, which is revealing.
To end this perfect summer's day, we visited the magnificent Bodnant Garden, perched above the River Conwy, with views across the valley to Snowdonia. It is indeed '80 acres of paradise': grand lawns, summer rose beds and herbaceous borders tumble over the Italianate terraces. What a blissful day.
On the way home to Glasgow, we stopped off in Chester, a 40-minute drive from Ruthin. The walled city in Cheshire deserves its reputation as one of the most picturesque cities in England. As we drove through the town to have lunch at the appropriately named 'The Architect', my youngest daughter, visiting for the first time, was astounded at the well-preserved buildings dating back to Roman times.
In summary, this was a wonderful trip, just a four-hour drive from Glasgow. We would have taken the train and bus to North Wales via Chester, but return tickets would have cost over £200 for three people (and that's with a rail card). Petrol for the entire trip was less than £80, and just as quick and more convenient than public transport. How on earth are travellers supposed to attend to their carbon footprint with this kind of differential?
On Monday, I popped along to see the Graduate Degree Show put on by the Glasgow School of Art postgraduate community, in the Tontine Building (Trongate, Glasgow). Passing along a myriad of corridors with spaces neatly sectioned for installations and exhibits, the show is hugely impressive, featuring some stunning work on display. As I was there only for an hour or so to see the work of a friend's son – the video artist Stewart Campbell (aka 'The Punk Buddhist Journalist') – I really needed a day to explore the entire exhibition.
Stewart's installation Notes on a life not quite lived
was mesmerising in its philosophical exploration of, and reflection on, the concept of 'self', depression, dreams and suicide. It begins by recalling Albert Camus' assertion that: 'There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.' I have to admit, that wasn't how the discipline was introduced to me at Coleg Harlech. But Camus might have had a point. Once we are clear on that question, a lot of things do naturally fall into place.
At any rate, Stewart's installation is deeply moving. It was fascinating to see how a topic that is usually handled in prose can be fruitfully and powerfully explored using a combination of dialogue, childhood memorabilia, video and sound. A haunting drawing by the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit – Scott Hutchison – who committed suicide in May last year jumping from the Forth Road Bridge is also on display, accompanied by dramatic video work. Coming away from it, I felt I had been through an emotional wringer.
On the way out, another exhibit caught my eye. Entitled Erasure
, it was an exhibition of a cross-cultural dialogue between two artists, Maryam Al-Hamadi and Elle Davis, from Qatar and Scotland respectively. Curated by Amna Al-Khalaf, the exquisite work explores female identity, freedom of expression and memories. Featuring drawings and excerpts from her private diary, Maryam, a 'closeted queer woman in Qatar', presents her thoughts publicly for the first time and bravely raises questions about censorship, religion and queer culture in her hometown. On the opposite wall, a collage installation by Scottish artist Elle Davis, explores the deeply personal and untold stories prompted by her imagination and reading of the body language of life drawing models.
This exhibition finishes tomorrow. I need to go back – for hours. If you can, this is a show well worth a visit.